On the north coast of Africa, directly south of Greece, was the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene, now in modern-day Libya. Founded in 630 BC, Cyrene quickly rose to prominence among other Greek settlements on the African coast and was known for its temple to the Greek god Apollo. The city had a prominent Greek population and a Jewish minority. It became a Roman province in 74 BC.
Cyrene was known for its export of silphium, a plant that was pictured on many of its coins. Silphium’s valuable resin, worth its weight in silver, was traded throughout the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it was so popular in ancient times that it was harvested to extinction in the first century AD. Overgrazing by livestock, the inability to cultivate it, and desertification of the land may have also contributed to its disappearance. Silphium’s identity is controversial, but most experts agree it was from the genus Ferula, a family of tough flowering plants related to carrot and parsley. Like other spices of the time, silphium was used as a seasoning and as a medicine. Fever, cough, indigestion, pain, and warts were all reportedly relieved by its healing properties. Silphium may also have been used as an early contraceptive or abortifacient (pregnancy-terminating drug), and it may be the origin of the traditional heart shape in connection with sexuality and love (its seeds were heart-shaped). The last known silphium from Cyrene was recorded to have been eaten by the Roman emperor Nero in the first century.
With Cyrene’s primary local export gone and multiple earthquakes wreaking havoc, the city was deserted by the seventh century AD, despite efforts at restoration. All that remains today are ruins near the Libyan city of Shahhat.